Challenges of the Global Commons

15 May 2011

Since 2007, the defence of the Global Commons has become an emerging policy issue for NATO Strategic Commanders, U.S. Department of Defence (DoD) strategists, and some Canadian Forces (CF) Chiefs of Staff. In planning for the complex challenges to future economic prosperity, international stability and strategic success, the NATO and DoD Global Commons discussion is evidenced in two particular cases.

In a recent report entitled Assured Access to the Global Commons, NATO HQ, Supreme Allied Commander Transformation, released its findings from a year-long project exploring that concept.  Correspondingly, in the United States, the mention of Global Commons can be found in a number of extant DoD capstone documents, including: the 2007 U.S. Maritime Strategy, the 2010 Quadrennial Defence Review and most recently the 2011 National Military Strategy of the United States. In order to appreciate what is meant by “defence of the Global Commons”, a basic understanding of what the commons are, from a NATO and DoD perspective, must be illustrated.

What are the Global Commons?
Many are familiar with the global commons in the context of the ongoing human dilemma related to environmental issues such as sustainability of global resources and climate change. As defined by NATO and the US DoD, the four realms of the Global Commons, from a security perspective, are the international maritime, air, space and cyberspace domains. These domains, three physical and one virtual, are the common areas of our planet over which no single nation can claim sovereignty. Together they form, what Pentagon strategists Michèle Flournoy and Shawn Brimley call, “the fabric or connective tissue of the international system.”

The maritime domain is recognizably the oldest and best understood of the Commons. It is this understanding of the oceans that has provided the basis for comprehending all of the other domains and, as such, is identified first – here, and in NATO and DoD documents.

Security Challenges
Since the Second World War, the task of safeguarding free access to these Global Commons has been upheld by militaries of the world’s free and democratic nations. However, with the end of the Cold War, a new strategic security environment has emerged. Realizing the strategic effect of denied access to these areas, non-state actors and rising regional powers are now challenging the 21st century global order to leverage economic, political and military power in their favour.

To meet these challenges, military leaders, defence planners and strategists are now viewing the four distinct global domains as a composite entity, and examining how best to defend the rapidly developing seams of vulnerability that exist between them. It is within these grey areas that potential opponents will attempt to exploit the commons and deny their use to others. The following examples are possible threats that may arise to challenge Canada’s access to the Global Commons.

Hybrid Naval Threats
Transport Canada’s 2009 Annual Report lists 65% of Canadian exports and 42% of imported goods (excluding USA) as being transited via the maritime domain in 2008. Considered to be the ‘circulatory system for global commerce’, free and open access to the world’s oceans is clearly vital to future economic prosperity and security, and assured access would ensure that trading alliances can continue to grow.

Describing it as a “naval version of urban warfare,” Canada’s Chief of the Maritime Staff, Vice-Admiral Dean McFadden, notes that the maritime domain is becoming an increasingly congested operating environment. Threatened by a multitude of merging hybrid threats, both merchant and warships are increasingly exposed to what he describes as “criminality ashore, spreading out to the seas.” Compounded by legal aspects of defending the coasts of littoral nations, threats are expected to continue challenging global shipping, especially at vital maritime choke points.
Further north, challenges to Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic are increasing. As non-Arctic nations, vying for a piece of the potentially vast Arctic resources, probe the extent of the regulated oceans, Canadian military and diplomatic officials are compelled to forge broad joint-agency cooperation. These relationships will aim to ensure that the Arctic Commons are used and protected in accordance with relevant international law, and that Canada’s internal waters are secured from both physical and legal intrusions by those who would like to consider them international waters and Global Commons.

Terrorism in Airspace
Like the maritime domain, free access to the international air commons is a critical enabler to Canadian participation in the global supply system. While natural disasters, such as the 2010 Iceland volcano, continue to pose challenges to the efficient and safe operation of air traffic, terrorism and large-scale attacks on air traffic systems from within Canada is a continuing concern from a security perspective.

Persons or groups aiming to disable, disrupt and diminish the ability of air operations have affected Canada in the past. The 1985 Air India Flight 182 bombing in which 280 Canadians lost their lives, and the 2006 counter-terrorism raids that resulted in the arrest of an 18-member terrorist cell in Toronto are two examples. While many Canadians believe that “if there are no attacks, then a threat doesn’t exist,” the reality is that the threat of homegrown terrorism has become an increasing challenge for Canada’s non-military intelligence and police services. Since the fall of 2010, five Canadians have been arrested on terrorism charges including a Toronto man who was arrested at Pearson Airport in March 2011 attempting to travel to Somalia to join an al-Qaida-linked group suspected of recruiting young Canadians to its militant cause.

For Canadians, and the security agencies sworn to protect them, homegrown terrorism will continue to be a challenge. To ensure the safety of its citizens, and to make certain that airports do not become areas of access for terrorism to international air operations, Canadian government agencies will increasingly need to work together in a whole of government approach.

Anti-Satellite Operations
Space satellites have given scientists, soldiers and traffic controllers the ability to monitor conditions on earth and convey that information with ever-increasing speed and accuracy. For our 21st century military, space based communications has become a mission-essential capability for command, control and communications for domestic requirements and operational situational awareness. This reliance on space capabilities is expected to increase, making such operations a target for physical and denial attacks.

As more nations work towards attaining the valuable title and prestige of becoming ‘space powers’, that domain will become more contested. Attacks on Canadian space assets, both terrestrial and space based, could increase by either physical damage or transmission disruption. Kinetic attacks, such as the 2007 Chinese anti-satellite missile test that resulted in the destruction of a Chinese weather satellite, remind defence professionals that the space technology gap enjoyed by developed nations for the last 60 years is rapidly shrinking.

Yet belligerents bent on denying access to the space domain and the communication network it enables, do not need costly advanced missile technology to create their desired effect. Non-kinetic cyber attacks on space assets are on the rise – and potentially disastrous. The fragile networks that connect space satellites are increasingly probed for vulnerabilities. According to its March 2011 Inspector General Report, the National Air and Space Administration (NASA) revealed that in 2009 its security system detected, and countered, a cyber attack on the networks that control the International Space Station, the Hubble telescope and the Space Shuttle. This incident highlights the potential destructive power an individual or group of hackers, using the Internet, could have on the critical digital networks that support our military, energy, financial, scientific and other sectors.

‘Stuxnets’ & ‘GhostNets’
Canada has been at the forefront of computer-based attacks at least as far back as 1982, when a pipeline control system – stolen from Canada and used in Russia by KGB spies – exploded. This nascent logic-bomb, as it was called at the time, ushered in a new dimension for Canadian national security. Today, rarely does a week pass without news of a cyber attack bypassing the digital fortifications of a government, military, educational, financial or retail security network.

With the ability to remotely control or disable assets connected to cyberspace, state or non-state actors are seeking to develop an ability to bring catastrophic crippling effects on military, industrial and financial operations using the Internet. In July 2010, a Windows-based computer worm, suspected of originating from a number of Western states, targeted Iran’s uranium enrichment software and infrastructure. Although successfully delaying Iran’s nuclear ambitions, a more devious worm attack on another nuclear facility could have led to more disastrous results. Fortunately, such attacks on Canadian nuclear facilities have either not happened or been successfully deterred.

But Canada has not been completely spared. In February 2011, hackers suspected of using China-based servers, managed to infiltrate the computer files of three government departments, transmitting classified information overseas. This attack on Canada’s government and citizens highlights a rising specter in a contested cyber domain: disguised, nameless, and shocking.

The Importance of the Global Commons Discussion
What does the Global Commons discussion mean for the Canadian Forces and other government security institutions dedicated to meeting a myriad of future challenges that threaten to undermine our democratic system, disrupt our free markets, drain precious national resources, and inhibit the development of stable societies globally?

As evidenced above, it is a simple deduction that many of Canada’s strategic interests lie in the openness of the Global Commons.  This will require a priority to improve cross-domain awareness, military transformation and a Whole of Government Approach. But, beyond discussing the threats, challenges and goals for ensuring access to the Global Commons, Canada’s military and diplomatic leaders need to display a genuine motivation for developing a comprehensive national security strategy for the future. Without this dedicated discussion, Canada will forfeit the opportunity to positively shape a favorable security and economic environment for current and future generations.

This reality may not be evident to all Canadians. As overwhelming attention is allocated to discussing day-to-day issues, such as fighter jet procurement, we shorten our vision, approach and range of choices required to meet the challenges of a future security environment.

To ensure that we do not shortchange future generations or throw away the hard lessons learned through history, Canadians should be encouraged to engage in vigorous discussion on a comprehensive national security strategy. This debate is necessary to safeguard our national interests, sovereignty and standing in a complex, yet opportune 21st century global environment.

The “High Seas” – Oceans
The idea of the oceans beyond territorial waters being a realm in which no single nation can claim sovereignty was first articulated by Dutch legal scholar Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) in his book Mare Liberum (The Freedom of the Seas). By the 19th century, freedom of the maritime commons in safeguarding seaborne commerce and national power was further articulated by American strategist ad Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan (1840-1914). In his work The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, Mahan’s concept of ‘sea power’ shaped the understanding of the vital importance command and freedom of oceans had on international diplomacy, security and economic prosperity. As a result, his theory of ‘sea power’ paved the way for the development and maintenance of the modern United States Navy and its dominance in the world’s open waters.

Prior to the end of the First World War, then American president Woodrow Wilson called on all nations to respect the ‘absolute freedom of the seas’ in his ‘Fourteen Points’ address to the American Congress. Wilson’s ‘freedom of the seas’ concept, that was to apply during both peace and war, lasted until 1994 when the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) was signed. Formally establishing the legal guidelines for the international use of the maritime commons, today UNCLOS helps nations define the limits, rights and responsibilities for the use of the world’s oceans and its resources.

The “Wild Blue Yonder” – Skies
With the advent of human-powered flight and the development of fixed-wing, propeller-driven aircraft, the air domain was opened up to human use. Using the method of defined demarcation as in the maritime domain, UNCLOS provides the basis for national and international use of this yet-to-be-century-old domain. In the skies, nations consider sovereign airspace to be 12 nautical miles (22.2 km) over national land, inland waters, archipelagic waters, and territorial seas – while international airspace is open to use by all. To ensure that the open skies are safe and well regulated, modern norms and regulations were established during the 1944 Convention on International Civil Aviation (Chicago Convention), setting the standard for airspace use, safety, and rights relative to air travel.

The “Final Frontier” – Space
The launching of ‘Sputnik’ in 1957 by the Soviet Union marked the opening of yet another domain to mankind. During the Cold War, space capabilities enabled the growth of a more complex era of global communication, scientific research and globalization. To clarify this new domain, the Swiss-based Fédération Aéronautique Internationale established the Kármán line, an altitude of 100 kilometres (62 mi) above the Earth’s sea level, as the boundary between the Earth’s atmosphere and outer space. As no international agreement exists to delineate the vertical extent of sovereign airspace, scientists and engineers generally agree that the space domain begins at the point at which satellites stay in orbit, or the point where “air-breathing” aircraft can no longer fly and vehicles must gain thrust from a reaction-based engine (rocket).

The “Matrix” – Cyberspace
Coined “cyberspace” in 1982 by science fiction author William Gibson, the cyber domain is the global network of both terrestrial and space-based communications infrastructure and computer processing systems. Generally known as the Internet, this human-created non-physical domain has become critical to the way individuals and societies interact, conduct business and engage in political discussion. Similar to the other domains, certain areas of the cyber domain, such as military networks, are considered to be sovereign territory and are not considered to be a part of the commons. But as territorial waters provide the gateway to the international oceans, these secure networks remain linked, and therefore vulnerable, to the wider Internet.
Marko Babic, a former Strategic Analyst at NATO Allied Command Transformation, is an independent analyst conducting futures analysis for NATO. An Army Reservist, he is also a student of military and strategic studies.
© FrontLine Defence 2011